Teachers bring chess to the classroom

Those in their 50s and 60s may remember that this year marked the 50th anniversary of Bobby Fischer becoming the first American to win the World Chess Championship by beating Russian Boris Spassky. It was an event that caught the attention of the American public. In 2022, the world is in the midst of a second chess boom, following the pandemic and the success of the hit Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit.

In New Hampshire, the state of Granite, teachers have the opportunity to bring the many benefits of chess into their schools and classrooms. Jerry Nash is the National Chess Education Consultant for Chess in Schools, a US-based nonprofit with a mission to bring life skills and critical thinking to the classroom. With a grant from the NH Department of Education, Nash and Chess in Schools are offering a four-day workshop, free to New Hampshire educators: The Granite Gambit.

Nash, who is also a senior advisor to FIDE’s Chess in Education Commission, has more than 20 years of experience training and working with school teachers. He has seen firsthand the benefits of playing chess in schools.

“Those educators consistently agree that chess is a perfect fit with the goals of education to produce students who can think creatively, make good decisions under time pressure, and learn from their mistakes.”

The first rounds of Chess training in New Hampshire’s Level 1 schools took place in October and November. Another round is scheduled for January 14. The attendees were full and the teachers enjoyed the class time and used the training in different ways in the classroom.

“My hope for New Hampshire teachers is that they will discover for themselves how chess can transform their students by giving them the skills they need to be successful in and outside the classroom. I also hope that the question is no longer, ‘Why should we play chess in our school?’ but rather: ‘Why don’t we already have a chess program?’ ‘ said Nas.

A unique aspect of the training is that even those teachers new to chess can return to their school with a plethora of strategies and mini-games that can help both novice students and those with experience. Simply put, you don’t have to be a grandmaster to be an effective chess teacher in school.

One teacher who had a lot of experience with chess when he arrived for training was Stijn Brand, the chair of the science department at Hopkinton High School. Brand was the 2014 amateur champion in New Hampshire.

“When I came to the workshop, it wasn’t for the chess content, but for ways to teach students how to play chess and how to run a club. I gained a lot of ideas during the training. It was good to see Jerry teaching the ideas of the game to beginners and I will use those strategies.”

Brand reports that Hopkinton has received about 14 students for the newly formed after-school chess club. He has a range of abilities there and sees the club growing.

“One of our high school teachers will attend the next training so we can grow it.”

Clubs are one way of bringing chess to a school, but chess is something that can be woven into the regular curriculum. At Hollis Primary School, Sarah Proulx is the media specialist and Penny Currier is a classroom teacher. After the training, they started to implement chess in all grades at HPS. One week the teachers used story elements in a lesson on setting up the chessboard. Another week, students “read the board” using coordinates that chess players use to identify the squares, incorporating mathematical graphic principles.

During the four-day CIS training, teachers learn and play many mini-games. These are activities that help new players learn the movement of the pieces, along with basic strategy. It can be overwhelming for a young person to learn the different movements and recording techniques of six different pieces. What makes these attractive is that they can focus on individual piece moves, yet have a game-like competition. This way they can grow up to be a regular chess game.

“The students really enjoy the minigames and are learning too. They’re picking things up faster than we expected and the excitement is mounting every week,” said Proulx.

On a global scale, chess has boomed since the Fischer Championship of the early 1970s. The site, chess.com, had about 30 million members when the world first learned of COVID-19. In November 2021, there were approximately 75 million members.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges educators already face. How do we involve students? How do we help them deal with missed learning opportunities? How can we help them become better critical thinkers? The Queen’s Gambit opened a window for many new to chess about how the game can improve critical thinking skills and be a tool for social-emotional learning,” said Nash.

Judy Preston is an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in SAU 9, the district including Conway. She travels to different schools and loves to be a part of the training. Preston visits several schools and classrooms as part of her position. Some of her students are as young as kindergarten.

“The students love chess. Many of my students are new to the US and chess has helped support their learning. They are able to connect vocabulary in a setting that is not abstract.”

For more information, visit granite.chessinschools.us.

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